Man ‘entombed’ by illness asks judge to let him choose when to die

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Jul 18, 2017
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Noel Conway wants the Suicide Act 1961, which makes anyone who helps someone to die guilty of a crime, declared incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights

Tom Pilston for The Times

A man who feels “entombed” by a terminal illness has taken his “fight for choice at the end of life” to the High Court.

Noel Conway, a 67-year-old grandfather and retired lecturer, is challenging the current law on assisted dying so he can have the option of ending his life when he chooses. He says that he wants to have a “swift and dignified” death when the time is right.

Conway, from Shrewsbury, had motor neurone disease diagnosed in November 2014 and is not expected to live for more than another year. He is reliant for 20 hours each day on a non-invasive ventilation device and was not well enough to be at the hearing in London yesterday, although he hopes to attend by video link on Wednesday.

When he has less than six months to live and retains the mental capacity to make the decision, he wishes to bring about a “peaceful and dignified” death with professional medical help. The Suicide Act 1961 prohibits assisted suicide, so anyone who helped him would be committing a criminal offence punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

In a statement to the High Court, Conway said he “does not wish to get to a stage where my qualify of life is so limited, in the last six months of life, that I am no longer able to find enjoyment in it”. He wants a declaration that the Suicide Act 1961 is incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which relates to respect for private and family life, and Article 14, which protects from discrimination.

Richard Gordon, QC, of Brick Court Chambers, told Lord Justice Sales, Mrs Justice Whipple and Mr Justice Garnham that Conway had expressed graphically the effect of his illness on him, referring to the feeling of “entombment”. He said others in Mr Conway’s position might consider going to Switzerland to die far from home - and expose anyone who helped with the arrangements to a risk of prosecution. He did not see that as an option, however. Nor did he consider that he could take the step of either himself removing the ventilation device or asking another to do so.

Gordon said: “The choices facing the claimant are therefore stark and unpalatable: seek to bring about his own death now whilst he is physically able to do so but before he is ready to do so; or await death with no control over when and how it comes.”

Mr Conway, who is supported by the campaign group Dignity in Dying, has already been to the Court of Appeal to win leave to bring the current action. The case is opposed by the Secretary of State for Justice, with the campaigners Humanists UK, Care Not Killing and Not Dead Yet UK also making submissions.

A ruling is not expected until the autumn.

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